You can argue with plenty of things in “Pieces of a Woman,” a skilled but heavy-handed drama now landing on Netflix after a tour of the fall film festivals. But you can’t argue with the monumental performance by Vanessa Kirby at its center — it won her a best actress prize at Venice — or the astonishing early scene that takes up the bulk of the first half-hour. It’s only afterward that the movie heads south.
Kirby you probably know as the young Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of “The Crown” or from her scenes in the last “Mission Impossible” movie, which she coolly stole from under Tom Cruise’s nose. She has deserved a break-out lead for some time, and “Pieces of a Woman” comes close to it. She plays Martha, who, when the film opens in a chilly September Boston, is nine months pregnant and due any second. Her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), is a bearded, rough-edged construction worker with a resentful chip on his shoulder toward Martha’s disapproving mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). He adores Martha, though, and when they take possession of a family-size minivan Elizabeth has bought them, Sean acknowledges, “This is us.”
Shortly thereafter, Martha goes into labor in the couple’s living room, and “Pieces of a Woman” enters into a grueling single-take sequence that masterfully tightens and releases the screws of tension — theirs and ours. Their midwife is at another birth and a substitute midwife (Molly Parker) arrives. Things go well, get worse, get better. Everyone’s on edge. The director is Kornél Mundruczó, a Hungarian filmmaker best known in the United States for “White God” (2014), an unnerving parable of a corrupted human society overrun by dogs. He has done theater and opera work, too, and he orchestrates this scene with unholy skill. It’s as bravura a piece of cinema as I’ve seen in quite a while.
If you don’t want to know how the sequence ends, however, I suggest you stop reading right here and come back later, since the remaining 90 minutes of “Pieces of a Woman” is concerned with the aftermath.
Are they gone? OK. The script is by Mundruczó's own partner, Kata Wéber, their first in English, and they have said it comes from their own experiences, or, more properly, hers. “Pieces of a Woman” is about heartbreaking loss and the human response to it — how there’s no “right” way to grieve even when your friends and family are telling you you’re doing it all wrong. Kirby’s performance is multilayered, with sorrow buried far down beneath strata of denial, stoicism, coping, fury. Martha is cool on the surface, but there’s a furnace going full blast where no one can see it, and it takes the rest of the film for it to burn through.
Around her, the other characters wheel and fret. Sean is four years sober, but as soon as he bums a smoke from the guy who’s misspelled the baby’s headstone, you know where this train is headed. LaBeouf has long been a figure of public mockery that in recent weeks has turned contemptuous; for all that, he remains a skilled, intuitive actor who makes Sean’s slow fall from grace seem sadly inevitable.
As the mother, Burstyn paints a portrait of a silver-coiffed monster, always ready with a withering rebuke disguised as a compliment. The actress is so good, in fact, that she just about sells you on the big dramatic monologue Elizabeth gets at the end of a disastrous intervention she has set up between her daughter and a cousin (Sarah Snook of “Succession”) who’s a personal-injury lawyer. That speech, a paean to survival that pulls in the Holocaust from the wings, is typical of the worst, most melodramatic excesses of “Pieces of a Woman.” If there are any Ellen Burstyn drag queens out there, they now have their grand finale.
The symbolism tends toward the thumpingly obvious — the apple seeds Martha repeatedly tries to sprout into new life, for instance. The gimmick that starts each of the film’s chapters comes to seem forced: a long shot of the bridge Sean is working on, the two sides gradually meeting in the middle as the ice melts and the seasons turn to spring. Local audiences, meanwhile, will scratch their heads at a movie set in Boston that looks nothing like Boston but rather like Montreal, down to the bilingual airport signs. (There’s a court officer who takes a shot at a Boston accent that lands somewhere north of Brooklyn.)
You can tell, in other words, that “Pieces of a Woman” has been written by someone in their native tongue and translated to English with more sincerity than art. Consequently, the best moments are cinematic or actorly; the former come early and the latter are concentrated in the poised, agonized figure of the title character. That title carries an echo of the 1974 classic “A Woman Under the Influence,” in which Gena Rowlands gave a performance (for her husband, director John Cassavetes) that still sears the edges of the frame and suggests the outer limits of a woman’s experience and a human being’s. I don’t know if the writer and director of “Pieces of a Woman” have seen that movie. I’d bet good money Vanessa Kirby has.
PIECES OF A WOMAN
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó. Written by Kata Wéber. Starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LeBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook. Streaming on Netflix. 126 minutes. R (language, sexual content, graphic nudity, brief drug use).